One year after earthquake and tsunami, what Japan has rediscovered

For the March 11 anniversary of its earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, Japan can be thankful for reviving its spirit of mutual help, best seen among the tsunami survivors.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP Photo
Shipbuilders construct a wooden fishing vessel in Minamisanriku, Japan, nearly a year after the March 11 tsunami hit the northeastern Japanese town.

March 11 marks the first anniversary of three historic disasters for Japan – a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, a massive tsunami, and a meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima. Of all the lessons learned so far from these tragedies, at least one has the potential to reshape Japanese society – and serve as an inspiration for other countries.

It comes from the survivors of the small towns along the northeastern coast that were wiped out by the tsunami. More than 19,000 of their family members and friends were killed. But it was the largely inept response to the disaster by the central government – which continues to some degree even now – that has forced them to fall back on the ancient Japanese virtue of koh, or a shared spiritual purpose reflected in mutual help.

Survivors in that region devised community-based solutions to cope with the devastation rather than wait for Tokyo’s politicians and bureaucrats to act. Largely left to their own devices, they came up with models of cooperation that have the possibility of being as effective in sustaining their communities as the billions in promised government aid.

In the first weeks after the disaster, the normal market economy collapsed. Neighbors had to learn how to barter for goods and services. Then makeshift shops popped up along the roads, creating a local economy cut off from the rest of Japan.

Then, a flood of 50,000 volunteers helped bolster that spirit of cooperation. Aid groups not only assisted in cleaning up the immense debris and in providing disaster relief – their attitude helped revive the spirit of giving at a time of deep suffering and anxiety. Amazingly, Japan’s Red Cross Society received more than $3.7 billion in donations, some of it from overseas. Three of 4 Japanese have given money to aid groups.

A cooperation-based economy developed, best seen in groups of fishermen helping each other in cooperatives. The tsunami wiped out 263 fishing ports. In the region’s other major economy, agriculture, farmers also learned to work together more closely.

Inspired not only by the region's devastation but also the residents’ spirit, Japanese companies and academia began to act. Toyota, for example, plans to build a car factory in the region, known as Tohoku. A group of universities has organized a volunteer network to provide assistance in rebuilding local industries and promoting tourism.

Helping drive these private efforts has been a serious drop in the public's trust of government. Political squabbling and the delay in reconstruction, not to mention misleading information about the radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, have created a crisis of credibility for both lawmakers and government ministries. The disasters laid bare a long history of business-government collusion, which only further pushed the survivors to seek their own solutions.

The shutdown of 52 of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants over safety concerns has also led to proposals to build solar and wind projects in the tsunami-hit zone. This idea of energy self-reliance reflects a desire to build up a local economy that is not dependent on the rest of Japan.

A clean-slate mentality may be contributing to these proposals. To be sure, much work remains in order to relocate the more than 300,000 people still living in temporary housing. Local officials are meeting resistance to plans for relocating towns to higher ground rather than rely again on tsunami-hindering walls.

Whatever roadblocks arise, however, Japan’s koh is back. A loss of faith in Tokyo’s authority has been a gain for the Japanese.

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